If there is a single work that captures the essence of America in sound and movement, it's "Appalachian Spring," the ballet with music by Aaron Copland and choreography by Martha Graham that premiered in 1944 at the Library of Congress.
Although the sonic part of the piece is never out of earshot, thanks to the perennially performed orchestral suite Copland fashioned from the score, the opportunity to experience the music and dance in its original form doesn't come around every day.
Since last fall, students at the Baltimore School for the Arts have been delving into the ballet from every angle, preparing for "An Appalachian Spring Festival," an interdisciplinary project that includes an art exhibit, a concert and panel discussions.
The main event is a presentation of the complete ballet, which depicts a pioneering couple and their new home in the Pennsylvania hills, a scenario redolent of old-time values, universal doubts and dreams.
This marks the first time that the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance has granted permission to a high school to produce the ballet in its original form. The project has involved quite an eventful learning curve.
"When I first heard the name 'Appalachian Spring,' I thought of the Appalachian Trail, which is pretty embarrassing," said Kimberly Bill, a 16-year-old violinist who will be playing in the orchestra for the ballet. "But I can say it's now my favorite piece I've ever played. The way Copland writes it, the emotion is almost overwhelming when you play it."
That music, with its spare harmonies and compelling use of the vintage Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," requires a lot in the way of sensitivity and technical polish from players. But at least the notes are all recognizable. The choreography requires a new way of moving and thinking by dancers.
The school does not offer training in the Martha Graham technique, a groundbreaking style of modern dance that is more likely to be taught at the college level. Graham applied this technique, with its distinctive angular shapes and pelvis-centered movements, on "Appalachian Spring" to great effect.
Lauren Simmons, one of the dancers in the school's production, entered the project as a novice and is finishing up as a convert.
"I had heard of 'Appalachian Spring,' but it never occurred to me how great it was," Simmons, 17, said. "We're continuing a legacy that's so amazing. I never had training in Graham technique before this. It is not just step after step. There is a whole philosophy behind every move; every small movement has a story behind it."
Auditions were held months ago to fill the eight roles in the ballet (two casts were chosen, allowing for alternating performances) and to form the small orchestra — Copland wrote the original score for a chamber ensemble of 13 players, all that could fit in the Library of Congress' Coolidge Auditorium for the premiere.
"The ballet fits young dancers, and the music fits young people, too," said Chris Ford, director of the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Throughout the school year, others joined in the adventure. Student designers and technicians have re-created the original set by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose strikingly minimalist design became an integral part of the ballet.
A group of students made a trip to the Library of Congress in September to delve into the extensive Copland and Graham archives there. That research generated another element in this week's festival — theater students have fashioned a prologue they will perform before the ballet, providing historical background.
Two veterans of the New York-based Martha Graham Dance Company have been regular visitors to the school, providing the finishing touches on the project.
Principal dancer Miki Orihara, a company member since 1987, is guiding the ballet students through their moves. She knows "Appalachian Spring" intimately, having frequently performed the role of the Bride that was created and danced by Graham.
Peabody Institute and Yale University alum Aaron Sherber, music director of the Graham company since 1998, is conducting the student orchestra for the ballet performances.
"At the Martha Graham Dance Company, we like to foster collaborative things," Sherber said. "It's great to see how the whole school here is involved in this. The kids really don't know the piece at all, but there's a really different energy the kids bring to this, a pure, raw excitement."
The impetus for "An Appalachian Spring Festival" came from Rheda Becker, an arts advocate who is on the school's board of overseers. She was inspired by "Ballet for Martha," a 2010 children's book by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (the book's illustrator, Brian Floca, will participate in the festival).
At the end of the book, which tells the story of the creation and first performance of "Appalachian Spring," the authors write: "New dancers will take their turns to move to Aaron Copland's music, to interpret Martha Graham's steps, to dance through Isamu Noguchi's set. And the collaboration will be created anew."
Becker took that message to heart.
"I thought it would be so rich in possibilities for the school," she said. (The festival is dedicated to her.)
In addition to giving students a rich educational and artistic experience, the festival gives Baltimore what is apparently a long-overdue look at this famous ballet. Sherber's search through touring records turned up a Graham Company performance of "Appalachian Spring" at the Lyric Opera House — in 1947.
The Graham Company takes its custodial role of the founder's ballets seriously. It doesn't routinely authorize student performances of "Appalachian Spring."
"Simply because it's too hard," Orihara said. "It involves a different vocabulary. Even high-end dance departments at colleges don't work a lot with the Graham technique. And if dancers don't have this technique, it takes a long time to really understand it. I was very amazed by these [Baltimore School for the Arts] kids."
One of those kids is Lenai Wilkerson, 15, who will be dancing the role of the Bride. She has been getting deep into the mood for it.
"Becoming the Bride has forced me to change my persona," Wilkerson said. "I have to be more reserved and pulled up. I have done dances where I had to portray a character, but not like this. I absolutely live this character every day of my life."
Wilkerson lives, too, with the aches from executing the steps devised by Graham, whose choreography was founded on a principal of "contraction and release." It's all about creating tension and energy, about how to breathe, and it's a far cry from the smooth curves and classical lines seen in a ballet corps performing "Swan Lake."
"The way that you have to have your back and head rooting up, and how you have to initiate from the pelvis, is such a difference for me," Wilkerson said.
Simmons has been adjusting, too. "Our knees hurt, our abs are sore, but it does get better," she said.
She portrays one of the four Followers of the Preacher, a dark, mesmerizing figure who displays revivalist fervor in "Appalachian Spring."
"This kind of dancing is outside our comfort zone," Simmons said. "We were all so nervous when we started. It's weird. You're not just dancing; you feel something. Friends who have stopped by rehearsals have been tearing up when they see it."
The lasting power of "Appalachian Spring" is all the more remarkable given that Copland only had a vague idea what Graham planned to convey in the ballet when he started to compose the music. He didn't even know the title she would pick (he wrote on his score "Ballet for Martha") and only saw the choreography shortly before the premiere.
As for the title, Graham took that from a line in "The Bridge," a poem by Hart Crane. Nothing else about the poem is connected to the ballet, just as nothing about Appalachia is connected to Copland's music.
"People come up to me," the composer wrote, "and say, 'Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music I can just see the Appalachians and just feel spring.' Well, I'm willing, if they are."
Learning about the origins of the work has been part of the fun for 17-year-old violin student Aaron Cary, who said that nothing about the words "Appalachian Spring" "rang a bell" with him before he got involved in the project.
"I read that Crane poem," Cary said, "and I thought, how could [Graham] pick out this one little spot in that huge poem and make it fit so well as a title? And the way the music and the dance fit together is really amazing."
'Appalachian Spring' Festival
•Opening of exhibit of student art work inspired by "Appalachian Spring" at 4 p.m. Monday. Free.
•"Artistic Vision Meets History," a discussion/demonstration on how historical theater is created, at 5 p.m. Monday. Free.
•Student musicians perform chamber works by Copland and his contemporaries at 7 p.m. Wednesday. $5 to $10.
•Illustrator Brian Floca will participate in a discussion/demonstration about his work for the book "Ballet for Martha," at 5 p.m. Friday. Free.
•"Appalachian Spring" will be performed by student dancers and musicians at 7 p.m. Friday; $10 to $15.
•A Family Day will combine children's activities, including dance and music, with performances of "Appalachian Spring" on Saturday. The pre-shows will be at 9:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m., the ballet at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. $10 to $35.
All events at Baltimore School for the Arts, 712 Cathedral St. Call 410-347-3043, or go to bsfa.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now